It’s National Arts & Humanities Month!

(Part 1 of 2)

In his Presidential Proclamation of October 2016 as National Arts & Humanities Month, President Obama stated that “throughout history, the arts and humanities have been at the forefront of progress.” Right now, at a time when some people are questioning what it means to be American, expressing fear of each other, and demonstrating uncertainty towards the very democratic process that founded the nation, the arts and humanities are uniquely poised to explore and address the situation, foster understanding, and move the country forward. President Obama continued, “[the arts] challenge us to see things through a different lens… by investing in the arts, we can chart a course for the future in which the threads of our common humanity are bound together with creative empathy and openness.”

Just as the President stated, public arts and humanities programs seek to present new perspectives, offer intimate portrayals of others’ experiences, and permit space for conversations and the exploration of solutions to improve and strengthen communities. In this two-part series, the Federation is beading-culturefeaturing council programs that specifically intertwine the two disciplines demonstrating the many ways the arts and humanities can build community, awareness, and understanding. This first part highlights programs designed to engage communities through community-led revitalization projects or in conversations encouraging social change and programs that explore cultural traditions in contemporary settings.

ENGAGE – Community-Led Revitalization and Social Change

When urban developers begin using words such as revitalization, community members often get nervous. Will their neighborhood still be a place they can afford? Will it still be a place that feels like home? Pennsylvania Humanities Council, along with several partners and community leaders, realized there may be a better way to transform a community. Instead of taking a typical top-down approach steered by outside curators and planners, they used a humanities-based initiative to recognize and promote the arts in Chester by building the capacity of local leaders, organizations, and artists. Then, the group worked to sustain their efforts beyond the scope of the project ensuring that the authors of this story were the residents of Chester themselves. More than 1,500 people have participated in the Chester Made initiative, enabling its evolution to the next phase of the project, Chester Made Exploration Zone. As Chester Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland stated, “The Chester Made Exploration Zone will provide an opportunity for youth to connect Chester’s historical and cultural identity to their personal lives and hopes for the city’s future.”

Sometimes community revitalization is needed, but sometimes, bringing a community back together has to happen first. In Ferguson, the Missouri Humanities Council partnered with Speak Up Productions to produce JUST Listening: A Short Film About Art & Activism, which focuses on art as a reaction to tragedy and as a form of activism. The documentary includes a brief historical narrative on Ferguson by professional storyteller Bobby Norfolk, and interviews with local artists and activists, known as “artivists.” This project seeks to ignite meaningful conversations on the importance of artivism in raising awareness of social issues, such as racial inequality and injustice, in order to help build a better community. A participant from the screening stated that the film was “So powerful and moving!” and that “the news should have showed these images.”

Delaware Humanities Forum also uses the arts and humanities in combined programming to explore and raise awareness of social issues and change. In their film screening of James Newton: A Life Story in Art, the council has partnered with Professor Emeritus James Newton, University of Delaware’s Black American Studies, who uses visual storytelling to power and shape positive social change.

The Rhode Island Council for the Humanities is using their programming, What is the 21st Century Essay?, to encourage social change related to environmental concerns. Through several collaborations, including the Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfires Initiative, the council is supporting performances, salons, conferences, multimedia interpretations, and publications to spur discussion on how journalism and the humanities can be used in the digital age to address pressing environmental issues.

EXPLORE – Cultural Traditions and Heritage

One of the draws of visiting different places is the ability to immerse oneself in another culture, to experience fully what it is like to celebrate other traditions, heritage, and life, and to understand something different about one’s own culture. Just as experiencing another culture is vital to promoting understanding, experiencing the stories and histories that make up our own culture helps solidify our sense of belonging, value, and heritage. Preserving these traditions is not only healthy, but also important to the stability of the nation. If we can’t understand where we came from, how will we know where we’re going?

In Wisconsin, the council helped fund a program to not only share a culture, but also connect people together in cultural community supporting the art, craft, and history of raised beadwork and thus the traditions of the Oneida nation. Beading Culture: Raised Beadwork and the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin helps the Oneida keep their craft alive and relevant in the 21st century through a touring exhibition and related programming examining identity, resilience, culture, and revitalization. “The Oneida, like many contemporary Indian people, can appear to outsiders to have become fully assimilated…making and wearing raised beadwork, whether it’s a purse worn every day or full regalia for special occasions, it’s a way to assert tribal affiliation and identity. Celebrating and sharing this art form through workshops, exhibitions, and public presentations says to the world, ‘This is who we are. We never went away, we haven’t lost our culture, and by keeping it alive we respect and honor our ancestors and the children who will inherit our traditions,’” says co-curator and project director Jody Clowes. She added that “the emotional response [of the artists and the audience members] made me realize just how meaningful and important it is for the Oneida to be seen and respected by the outside community as well as their own. I believe programming like this, if developed with sensitivity and the artists’ close involvement, can be a healing force.”

Similarly, in Virginia, the council is working to preserve folklife traditions through its Folklife Apprenticeship Program. In this program an experienced master artist is paired with an apprentice for nine months to help ensure a particular art form is passed on in ways that are conscious of history and faithful to tradition. The Virginia Folklife Program is the only folklife program in the nation based with a state humanities council, giving the council several unique and important opportunities, including being able to respond to critical, ethical, ethnographic and political issues concerning the representation of culture. As master artist Andrei Saveliev said of his experience, “I came to feel spiritually connected with the entire program… I realized at the showcase that this was part of something larger than just my work with [apprentice] Aaron. I had never had the opportunity to see the culture of all these different types of communities. It was a thrill because I see that the same passion runs through it all.”

In Hawaii, the council is supporting Imayo: Japan’s New Traditionalists, an art exhibition that explores the art and practice of six contemporary Japanese artists, each of whom has been inspired by and trained in historical craft traditions and methods, including specific forms of Japanese painting, wood sculpture, metal sculpture, and textile art. The exhibition both honors and transcends the confines of “tradition,” reflecting and commenting upon Japan’s own complex relationship with the past. This approach is ironically referenced in the exhibition title word Imayo, a Japanese term of ancient origin that means “in the contemporary style.” Lectures accompany the exhibition and include topics such as the role of tradition in Japanese art, and the meaning and use of tradition.

Part two focuses on programs that blend the arts and humanities to encourage and inspire students and underserved populations, educate communities through exhibitions and stories, and connect people through shared experience.

In addition to the many programs featured here, several councils including the North Carolina Humanities Council and Utah Humanities offer mini or quick grant opportunities throughout the year and specifically during Arts & Humanities month for organizations interested in conducting their own arts and humanities programming.

To explore more council programs, visit the Council Program Finder and filter by subject, format, state, audience, national initiative (i.e. Pulitzer Prizes Campfires), or multi-council program (i.e. Reading Frederick Douglas).